Part 1: Political truth is elusive
In politics, there is no such thing as objective truth. For liberals and Democrats, facts are screened through a center-left prism; for conservatives and Republicans, through a center-right prism. The New York Times’ slant is center-left; the Wall Street Journal’s center-right. E. B. White once observed: “I have never seen a piece of writing, political or nonpolitical, that doesn’t have a slant. It slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.”
There’s nothing wrong with this. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are private enterprises, and they are free to slant anyway they wish.
Former editor of the Washington Post Ben Bradlee’s autobiography, A Good Life, has recently been reissued with a new foreword by Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In this foreword they focus on the issue of truth. They quote Bradlee as saying, “I take great strength knowing in my experience, the truth does emerge.” Woodward and Bernstein then say, “Bradlee was fearless. He knew that finding the truth required standing up to power.” Later, they say, “The principles, energy, and commitment to that best obtainable version of the truth live on.” And they conclude on the matter of truth, “there is going to be a profession of journalism and their job is going to be to report what they believe the truth to be.”
But Woodward and Bernstein got it only half right. The Post has a liberal slant, and even Ben Bradlee said so: He refers in his autobiography to “the liberal Washington Post.” He says of the conservative Barry Goldwater: “I didn’t care for most of his judgments, nor he for mine, but I found in him basic virtues—loyalty, dignity, friendship, outspoken honesty.”
Bradlee also suggests that objective truth is elusive when he says of readers: “It is far easier and more comfortable for them to accept as truth whatever fact fits their own particular bias, and dismiss whatever facts might misfit their biases. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of reader bias in any serious study of press criticism.”
And Bradlee reveals that truth depends on the slant or bias of readers: “We can improve our sourcing 100 percent with very little effort. What kind of sources? Friends or foes? Men or women? Army or Navy? Republicans or Democrats? Young or old? Lawyers or clients? Gays or straights? Doctors or patients? In government or out? Incumbents or aspirants?”
Albert Camus got it right on the matter of singular objective truth: “there is no truth; only truths.” Clearly so in the field of politics.
On the issue of truth, Jeffrey Toobin was much closer to the mark than Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In politics, truth is political ideology. Toobin observes in The Nine:
When it comes to the core of the [Supreme] Court’s work, determining the contemporary meaning of the Constitution, it is ideology, not craft or skill, that controls the outcome of cases. As Richard A. Posner, the great conservative judge and law professor has written, ‘It is rarely possible to say with a straight face of a Supreme Court constitutional decision that it was decided correctly or incorrectly.’ Constitutional cases, Posner wrote, ‘can be decided only on the basis of a political judgment, and political judgment cannot be called right or wrong by reference to legal norms.’
When it comes to the incendiary political issues that end up in the Supreme Court, what matters is not quality of the arguments but the identity of the justices. There is, for example, no meaningful difference between Scalia and Ginsburg in intelligence, competence, or ethics. What separates them is judicial philosophy—ideology—and that means everything on the Supreme Court.
I personally have a slant or philosophical bias (not prejudice), and know what it is and why. I have philosophically and cerebrally long thought the matter out on political positions. But so what? Who cares what I think—or some movie star or famous athlete or journalist? Our political views are pathological and tribal. We argue in retrospect: that is, the liberal looks into the wide field of facts and lands on liberal facts; the conservative looks into the same field and focuses on conservative facts. Political views are elusive and arbitrary—far more uncertain than Woodward and Bernstein would have them.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation has arrived philosophically and cerebrally at the truth I find more persuasive. I will stick with and support this educational foundation.
(This is the first part of a two-part article. Click here to continue to part two.)